27/03/2017 06:23 SAST | Updated 27/03/2017 06:23 SAST

Fact Checking Is Now More Important Than Ever

Fake news is easily manufactured because of the rise in the use of social media by media practitioners and imposters find it easy to pose as the real deal.


In the increasingly fast-paced media world where news is spouted out by the minute and consumers are reading faster than ever before it has become highly important to be factual and correct in reporting. However, this is not always the case as has been seen by an increasing rise in stories that are not factually sound or correct. This rising trend is because of many economic problems within the media industry that have led to cutbacks in staff positions but it has also led to a dangerous new phenomenon termed 'fake news'.

It is so dangerous because it has immense consequences as has been seen in the Brexit vote and the 2016 US elections. Its effects can also be seen closer to home with campaign war rooms set up to discredit rival political parties and fake social media accounts that are set up to pose as a particular organisation or journalist. The Sunday Times, Huffington Post SA and Ferial Haffajee have all fallen victim to having fake twitter accounts set up in their name and then having false information attributed to them.

Fake news is easily manufactured because of the rise in the use of social media by media practitioners and imposters find it easy to pose as the real deal. Any John Doe can set up one of these accounts and begin to cause havoc in the mainstream media. It becomes particularly dangerous when fake news sites are built and distribute news stories that are completely false. These news stories can sway public opinion as they enter the mainstream because average readers will read anything without asking, who wrote this, which site does it come from and how verifiable are the facts? Once consumers read a story that fits their worldview they often share it on social media and their followers pick up on the same false information and share it further. One can easily see how sharing unverifiable and outright false news stories could lead to devastating causes.

The consequences of such actions can be seen throughout the 2000s with the first bit of manufactured information leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the Bush administration. The president along with his director of central intelligence, George Tenet, secretary of state, Colin Powel and secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, led the United Nations as well as the mainstream news media in the US to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The manufactured information was so convincing at the time that the United Kingdom joined the US efforts in invading Iraq. One can now easily see how this could come to be because a powerful government under pressure to respond after the 9/11 attacks and with re-election on the horizon needed a big foreign policy move to sure up support.

Public support for the war was on the rise and congress voted to authorise the invasion and expand the president's powers because he had now become a wartime president. In 2004 Bush was easily re-elected and by the time doubts started to surface over the war it was too late. Ultimately the WMDs were never found and the Bush administration had manufactured themselves a second term based on false intelligence that was presented to the public by the mainstream media as plausible. This is real 'fake news'

The term took on a whole new meaning in 2016, however, because politicians once again realised the power of manufacturing a news narrative that fit their goals. In the UK Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson lied when campaigning for the Brexit vote that £350 million (R5.8 billion) that was being sent to the European Union every week would be put back into the UK economy by way of the National Health Service (NHS). Once the Brexit vote was secured it was quickly debunked and the two both changed their story. Similarly, in the US, presidential candidate Donald Trump used twitter so effectively and labelled the mainstream media as biased, dishonest and fake news that he could literally say whatever he liked and his support base would not believe the news media because they had been told enough times that it was fake news.

He rode that pony all the way to the White House and continues to use Twitter to discredit the media. Recently CNN, the Guardian, BBC, BuzzFeed, the New York Times and the LA Times were locked out of a press conference because of their perceived biased coverage of the president. President Trump has particularly taken a disliking towards CNN having labelled them the number one 'fake news' organisation. This sentiment has meant that the current administration has discredited the media so much that mistrust amongst Americans has led some polls to show that they trust the president more than the media to be truthful.

One can clearly see how important it is now more than ever before that the media stand up and debunk all the nonsense that is spouted by politicians and inform an electorate that is in dire need of factual information. Reporters are under increased pressure to meet deadlines and produce multiple stories every day and so they do not always have the time to check every fact, which can lead to consequential mistakes. This is where organisations like Africa Check become paramount to a journalist's job.

Africa Check goes through stories and checks all the assertions made therein to ensure that they are factually correct. One cannot simply rely on these types of organisations to do our fact checking for us. We need to believe that what we are reading is correct and factually sound and it's up to the reporter to do that correctly. The media more than ever has to be on top of their game and push back against public figures that would seek to discredit them. What is the media without its credibility after all?